Sunday, May 10, 2020

Beanie Feldstein Learns How to Build a Girl in This "True-ish" Tale from the Music-Rag Trade

John (Alfie Allen) and Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) / IFC
(Coky Giedroyć, UK, 2019, 104 minutes)

"A 10-year-old could be a rock critic."
--Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein)

Johanna Morrigan, the 14-year-old at the center of Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical 2014 novel How to Build a Girl is bookish, desperate to lose her virginity, and in her own words, "fat." I appreciate the fact that, despite a large vocabulary, she never uses synonyms for fat, like heavy or big-boned. No, she describes herself as fat, but refreshingly, she doesn't hate herself or her body. Nor does she express any desire to be thin.

In Moran's book and Coky Giedroyć's film, both of which take place in 1990, she wants boys to like her, to have a purpose in life, and to help provide for her council-estate family (Giedroyć, sister of The Great British Baking Show's Mel Giedroyć, is best known for her work on BBC America's The Hour). Considering that Moran's fictionalization of her adventures in the music-rag trade is a thoroughly British affair, the casting of American actress Beanie Feldstein as Johanna is an odd choice, not least because the rest of the cast is British, but after her winning turns as the best friends in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, her casting makes sense--even if she's 10 years older than the 16-year-old she plays. And if her accent isn't perfect, it's good enough, which means she's well on her way to joining the Gwyneth Paltrow-Renée Zellweger Club that spawned Shakespeare in Love, Sliding Doors, and several Bridget Jones films.

John isn't sure what to make of the teenage journalist / IFC
Johanna lives with her parents, four brothers, and a border collie--her best friend--in Wolverhampton in the Midlands (the same region where Shane Meadows sets all of his films).

Her mullet'd father, Pat (Paddy Considine, who knows a thing or two about the Midlands), and older brother, Krissy (Laurie Kynaston), are well versed in pop music, whereas she knows very little. Her heroes include authors, artists, actresses, philosophers, and psychoanalysts. Not a pop star among them. In the film, she imagines that their portraits, played by everyone from Michael Sheen (Freud) to Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), can speak to her.

When Johanna wins a poetry contest, she gets to appear on a local chat show (Chris O'Dowd plays the host), where her stage fright leads to an ill-advised Scooby-Doo impression. The next day, kids make fun of her--even more than usual--and authorities put the kibosh on Pat's unlicensed border collie-breeding business. What's a girl to do, except to reinvent herself? She gets her chance when she enters a music writer contest, but even the all-male staffers at London's D&ME, a Melody Maker-like music weekly, make fun of her. They found her review, of the Annie soundtrack, well written, but so uncool they thought she was doing a bit, but she was just being herself.

Lily Allen (Elizabeth Taylor) once wrote a song about her brother Alfie

So, she decides to revamp her image. Considering that she knows as much about fashion as she does pop music, she ends up looking like a refugee from The Rocky Horror Picture Show with her flame-red hair, fishnet tights, and waiter's jacket. In the book, Johanna dyes her hair black, but she does note a fondness for redheads, like Little Orphan Annie. To go along with the new look, she adopts the pen name Dolly Wilde (Moran's script fails to explain that Dolly was Oscar Wilde's rebellious niece, though the inclusion of Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" on the soundtrack surreptitiously nods to that fact).

Then, Johanna launches her career with a review of a Manic Street Preachers gig. There are more reviews to come as she finds herself living a life much like Cameron Crowe's alter ego in Almost Famous…except she's a girl, she still lives at home, and she writes for a regional publication. Just as William's mother supported his music-journalist dreams in Almost Famous, albeit with Britpop standing in for classic rock, Johanna's parents do the same, which also brings Stephen Merchant's Fighting With My Family to mind, since he captured a similarly non-judgmental, working-class milieu.

Nowadays, a music writer probably couldn't do much to pull their family out of debt, but Johanna helps hers to get back on their feet, since Angie (Sarah Solemani) is stuck at home with twins--the results of an unplanned pregnancy--and Pat, who once dreamed of pop stardom, is on disability.

Johanna and her all-male, music weekly colleagues / IFC
For her first feature, Johanna travels to Dublin to interview a balladeer, John Kite (Alfie Allen, Lily Allen's brother and an Emmy nominee for Game of Thrones), who finds her utterly charming. To her credit, she doesn't smoke or drink. To his credit, he doesn't insist, and though she invites him up to her hotel room, they don't sleep together. She falls in love with him, which seems like a terrible idea, but an understandable one, considering that most men have ignored her up until now. Unfortunately, her editor hates the story, which reads like a mash note, and her career appears to be over as soon as it began, so she reinvents herself yet again, this time as a mean girl. To wit, "It's a truth, universally acknowledged, that Paul Simon looks like a toe someone drew a face on."

Once she segues to the Dark Side, she drinks, smokes, and sleeps around, but that's par for the rock and roll course. More critically, she insults her family and betrays a subject's confidence. If her rise was compelling, her fall feels overly-familiar, though Johanna never goes as far as Elisabeth Moss's rock star character in Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell. Still, she crashes hard, and she has to struggle mightily to free herself from the wreckage--in a way that recalls Alcoholics Anonymous's Steps 9 and 10: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all" and "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." By the end, she's still 16, fat, and single, but she's found her purpose in life. And it isn't writing snarky reviews for a music weekly, a lesson that takes decades for some people to learn. If I found the ending a little too good to be true, I can't say I wasn't moved.

How to Build a Girl is available from cable and digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Comcast, and DirecTV.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

"Every Man Should Be an Author of His Own History" vs. True History of the Kelly Gang

Ma (Essie Davis) and son (Orlando Schwerdt) Kelly
(Justin Kurzel, Australia, 2020, 124 mins)

Justin Kurzel's grimy, punk-rock take on the life of Australian outlaw Edward "Ned" Kelly, which follows previous versions starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, picks up where Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale left off. While Kent set her brutal, bruising revenge tale in 1820s Australia, Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin's Creed) shifts 40 years ahead, but the Irish characters still have the chips stacked up against them and the British have all the power.

Kurzel begins his loose adaptation of Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel with Ned as a 12-year-old. It's 1867, and our feisty anti-hero (played by the very good Orlando Schwerdt), grandson of Irish immigrants brought to Australia by force, lives in the middle of nowhere--the Colony of Victoria--with scrappy siblings, a tough mama, and a pop who likes to wear frocks. Kurzel has as much sympathy for John "Red" Kelly as his wife, Ellen (Essie Davis, star of Kent's The Babadook), which is to say: none at all, but it sets up the idea that Ned is--or will be--the "true" man of the family.

When a wealthy neighbor takes a shine to the kid and offers to pay for him to attend boarding school, Ellen puts her foot down, telling her, "You're trying to bleed our culture out like you did the black fella before us." She adds, "Only the Lord should take my children from me--not no Englishman." Clearly, she views boarding schools the same way Native Americans did in the States in the 19th and 20th centuries. And with good reason.

"Every man should be an author of his own history." / IFC
After Ned's father takes a powder, various men come to call, including the oily Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and bushranger Harry Power (a scruffy Russell Crowe relishing a juicy role). When Ned asks Harry why he's writing his memoirs, he explains that his story is the one thing even the most impoverished man can call his own. "Don't leave it for the English to tell it. They'll only fuck it up and steal the proceeds." (Ain't that the truth.) Harry introduces Ned to a life of violence with a side of alcohol and profanity. At first, he comes across as a big, burly teddy bear of a man, especially when he teaches Ned's family a jolly anti-police song about "cunts" and "cunt-stables," but he's a vile creature who procures goods through cold-blooded murder. It's the first sign that this won't be a story about good vs. evil, but about evil vs. more evil.

Just as O’Neill once imprisoned his father--for a crime Ned committed--he locks away the son, too. By the time he gets out, Ned (now played by George MacKay) is no longer a boy. He's a bare-knuckle boxing, mullet-headed adult who returns to find that his mother has taken up with a younger man (New Zealand folk singer Marlon Williams). Cue up the Freudian frustration, which subsides when Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, returning to Australia after his memorably unhinged turn in Fury Road) introduces him to hooker with a heart of gold Mary (Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie). Like Ellen and Harry, Ned distrusts the British, and fully expects Fitzpatrick to betray him--and that's exactly what happens.

Getting the band, er gang, (back) together. / IFC
The betrayal spurs Ned to form a gang and hit the road. Along the way, he asks his brother, Dan (Nick Cave's son, Earl), why he likes to fight in frocks, much like their late father. "Men are most afraid of what they don't understand," Dan explains, adding, "Nothing scares a man like crazy." I'm sure it was unintentional on Kurzel's part, but it's worth noting that Earl's mother, Susie Cave, is a dress designer. Less intentional, however, is the fact that Nick and his father, Colin Cave, have been famously obsessed with--and creatively inspired by--Ned Kelly and his exploits. Just see John Hillcoat's Nick Cave-scripted western The Proposition for proof (seriously, do see it, it's a magnificent piece of work).

If the subjugation of the Irish by the British is one theme of Kurzel's film, the other is this: What makes a man? Ned is physically tough, but he's sexually inexperienced, possibly bisexual, and loath to take another man's life. In 2020, this wouldn't disqualify him from manhood, but in 1880, Shaun Grant's script argues, he doesn't quite measure up. That changes once he gets a taste for killing. Now he's an outlaw, and it will only be a matter of time before the cops catch up to him. This isn't a spoiler. Not just because it happened in real life, but because it's as inevitable as the death spirals depicted in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two possible influences (Nick Cave makes a welcome cameo appearance in the latter).

The film's final act revolves around Ned and his gang of frock-sporting, cop-hating, shamrock-worshipping "Sons of Sieve." For protection, they wear scrap-metal armor like rinky-dink Lost in Space robots. And this is the point at which the film goes off the rails, possibly because Kurzel takes so long to get to it that it feels anticlimactic no matter how many strobe light and other effects he throws at the screen. The time we spend getting to know the relatively innocent, pre-outlaw Ned proves more compelling in comparison.

Ned's pal and possibly lover (Sean Keenan) at center. / IFC
By the end, Ned has earned his mother's respect. He's a man. And all he has to show for it is a death sentence. The tragedy isn't just that it's a Pyrrhic victory, but that it fails to stir the soul the way Kurzel and Grant surely intended. I don't believe it's McKay's fault as much as their rather single-minded, charmless conception of the character. MacKay, who proved a more engaging lead in Mathew Warchus's Pride and Sam Mendes' 1917, gives it his all, but once Ned turns to savagery, he comes across as more petulant brat than righteous antihero, even if he never had a chance and even if he had brutal men like O’Neill and Power as mentors.

For what it's worth, MacKay is better in every way than the inexplicably-cast Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's misbegotten 1970 biopic, which jettisons Ned's childhood in favor of a rustic Paint Your Wagon-style musical (even Jagger's singing doesn't measure up; folk isn't exactly his forte). I haven't seen the 2003 Gregor Jordan film with Ledger, which also drew from a work of fiction, but it didn't meet with an especially enthusiastic response. Further, not one of these gents looks anything like the real Ned Kelly.

Since Kurzel's film has been making the rounds, critics have complained that it's a distorted version of actual events, but the joke is on anyone who would take the title literally. First, the film is adapted from a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. Second, it opens with a title card proclaiming "Nothing you're about to see is true." Third, the disclaimer after the end credits clearly states, "True History of the Kelly Gang is a work of fiction." It only makes sense to judge it on those terms. As such, it doesn't quite work, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth making or that it isn't worth seeing.

For all its faults, it's no small feat that the film looks good (it was shot by In Fabric's inventive Ari Wegner), it sounds good (Kurzel's brother, Jed, provided the spare, moody score), and Essie Davis offers her usual excellent value, though her performance as Ellen Kelly won't make anyone forget the fabulous Miss Fisher or the prodigiously stressed mother she played in The Babadook. But it does mean you're better off reading Peter Carey's novel, a rip-roaring work of historical fiction that truly does its namesake proud.

Rent True History of the Kelly Gang from Amazon Prime or Apple TV.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Home Is Where the Horror is in La Casa Lobo

THE WOLF HOUSE / La Casa Lobo 
(Cristóbal León and Joaquïn Cociña, Chile, 2018, 73 minutes)

La Casa Lobo, aka The Wolf House, is one trippy film. Though classified as horror, it isn't scary in the conventional sense. Instead, it's more like the fairy tale surrealism of Jan Svankmajer or the Quay Brothers, though Cristóbal León and Joaquïn Cociña took inspiration from real events. Their feature film debut is weird and creepy, to be sure, but it's more like a subversive political allegory in the form of a twisted domestic drama. In other words, horror, because what's scarier than families and politics?

It begins with a film within a film about the Colony, aka Colonia Dignidad, a Pinochet-era German commune in Chile. The Spanish-speaking narrator (voiced by Rainer Krause), a wolf, explains that they made the film to prove to the outside world that there's nothing dangerous about the Colony. After all, it revolves around the production of honey. The inhabitants are just simple farm people, and there's nothing sinister going on here. No sir, nope. (In actuality, Colony members tortured and killed political dissidents.)

León and Cociña, who shot the film in a variety of art gallery and museum spaces--Santiago, Hamburg, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires--then shift from the documentary-style prologue to an animated sequence featuring a Little Red Riding Hood-like Maria (voiced by Amalia Cassai) who escapes from the Colony to avoid punishment for lettings three pigs go free, but she's just jumping from the frying pan into the fire, because the single-sequence-shot film she enters is as much a propaganda piece as the prologue.

While fleeing through the woods, she comes across an abandoned house in a clearing. Because we see things through her eyes, we don't see her at first. Then, the animated painting she inhabits segues from black and white to color and from two dimensions to the three dimensions of stop-motion papier-maché puppetry. Every transformation is accompanied by the sounds of rustling paper, stretched fabric, and a tinkly, music box-like score.

In the house, Maria finds two pigs. She promises to keep them safe from the wolf outside the door. The house and its inhabitants are constantly changing. Maria melts into a chair and re-materializes as a movable mural. The pigs alternate between papier-maché creatures and murals. León and Cociña add real furnishings to these dioramas, blurring the lines between animation and live action. To pass the time, Maria plays games and sews clothes. She encourages the pigs to become humanoid, and so they do. She names them Pedro and Ana. When she reads Pedro a story about a dog and a house, which parallels her own escape from the Colony, the story comes to life.

But then, something happens and the children are injured. She feeds Pedro honey to restore him to health. Though he improves, he doesn't revert to his brunet form, but rather a blond version more closely resembling his Germanic "mother." She also transforms Ana into something more Germanic. The formerly silent children (both voiced by Cassai) also begin to talk, but they just parrot things Maria wants them to say, though they speak in Spanish, while she continues to speak in German.

Just as Maria recreated a version of the Colony in the house, the children end up turning the tables and making her their captive. She left the Colony precisely to escape the fate in which she has found herself. Out of desperation, she calls out to the wolf to save her. The ending, which returns us to the film within a film, is meant to be happy, because we're told that it is, but the narrator was never reliable. If it sounds like I've given too much away, I haven't. La Casa Lobo is the kind of film that needs to be experienced, because it's unlikely you've ever seen anything like it before.

La Casa Lobo was set to open at Northwest Film Forum March 27, but was postponed due to the quarantine. It will now screen virtually May 15-29. Link to come! I also hope to discuss it at this year's Crypticon, which takes place Sept 18-20, as part of a panel on Spanish-language horror.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Kansas City, Here I Come: A Reconsideration of Robert Altman's Most Personal Project

Jazzy new art for the Blu-ray cover
(Robert Altman, 1996, USA, 116 minutes)

"It's a jazz memory."
--Robert Altman on his 30th feature film

The term personal project suggests autobiography to some degree or another, but that isn't exactly what's going on in Robert Altman's jazz-saturated period piece, Kansas City. Ever the literalist, I was confused by the description at first, but all artists have their own unique ways of integrating their history into their work, and the late filmmaker (1925-2006) found a rather elliptical way to do that with his.

First of all, he and co-writer Frank Barhydt (Tanner '88), who have shared roots in Kansas City, built the story around a woman, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who worked with Altman in Short Cuts), and not a man. Women loom large in Altman's filmography, but not often as leads, and Blondie is older by a decade or two than Altman would've been in 1934. And he didn't just grow up there, he launched his career as a director of industrial films in Missouri before moving to Southern California to work in television and then, later, the movies (he and Barhydt, whose father ran the production company where Altman got his start, reconnected after they moved to Hollywood).

Carolyn "Red" Stilton and Blondie O'Hara
So, there's no obvious Altman analogue in this large-canvas tale, and yet the autobiographical elements are baked into the recipe, informing who he was and who he would become. The wealthy husband (Altman regular Michael Murphy) of the laudanum-addicted wife (an excellent Miranda Richardson) Blondie kidnaps, for instance, isn't just any man, but one inspired by his father. In the film, Henry serves as an FDR adviser, and he's out of town when Blondie bluffs her way into the Stilton household in an attempt to force him to use his political connections to release her husband (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of Seldom Seen (a commanding, gravel-voiced Harry Belafonte), the owner of the Hey-Hey Club and de facto head of the juke joint district, a bustling hub impervious to Prohibition and Great Depression alike (in his entertainingly rambling audio commentary, Altman describes Seldom as "a real guy around town").

If it all sounds convoluted, it is! Not in the sense that it's hard to follow, but in that the narrative plays more like the plot of a pre-code film than anything drawn from real life. "I'm sure it isn't terribly realistic," Altman admits. Still, he was combining actual incidents--kidnappings were a regular occurrence in the '30s--with stories he heard as a young man, some of which were surely embellished, but he captures the vibe of the place, a time when KC was filled with jazz, political maneuvering, and vices of every kind.

"Harry is my closest friend."--Robert Altman
As the son of a prominent man, Altman was likely shielded from some of KC's harsher realities, and yet he was clearly paying attention, since a bone-deep sympathy for the downtrodden is a distinguishing characteristic of his work. That brings us back to Blondie, who isn't really blonde, but who is definitely downtrodden. She used to bleach her hair, like her idol Jean Harlow (a KC native), but had to stop when it fell out. This is actually a myth about Harlow; no one has reliably proven she lost her hair, but Altman runs with it. The fact that Blondie, who comes across as hapless, takes strength from Harlow's powerful screen presence, though, provides a link with the young Altman, who also started out as a movie-mad dreamer before he found a way to make movies of his own (in the commentary, he credits David Lean's 1945 Brief Encounter for showing him just what a film could do, since he started out skeptical and ended deeply moved). Blondie, on the other hand, just wants her man back. That's her sole ambition.

Like the comic-strip cutie from whom she got her name, she's all broad strokes. The Western Union telegraph operator talks like a moll and walks like a pigeon, head thrust forward Olive Oyl-style (considering that Altman directed a live-action adaptation of E.C. Segar's strip, I'm not sure this is completely coincidental). He's also made her unnecessarily unattractive, which isn't a dig at Jason Leigh, but she has to hiss her lines through dingy dentures, and she's lit in a way that does her no favors. Richardson, by contrast, gets the soft lighting and the flattering angles. Altman may sympathize with the downtrodden, but he definitely doesn't sugarcoat them. As the film hurtles towards its cynical conclusion, it becomes clear that Johnny isn't just a hood, he's a loser. Blondie can't see it, but Carolyn can. The way she looks at Blondie softens as she learns about her mouthy captor's lousy life--even if Blondie has a gun pointed at her the whole time.

A Blondie favorite / By MGM - eBaycard, Public Domain
Before the ladies come to an under-
standing of a kind, one that favors the haves over the have-nots, they tangle with a range of KC figures, includ-
ing mobster Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), Junior Leaguer Nettie Bolt (Jane Adams)--a name Altman swiped from his grandmother--and Charlie Parker's mother, Addie (Jeff Feringa), a Union Station cleaning woman.

Altman depicts Charlie (Albert J. Burnes) as a 15-year-old aspiring musician who would sneak into the Hey-Hey Club, sax in hand, to watch Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) and Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and pianists Bill "Count" Basie (Cyrus Chestnut) and Mary Lou Williams (Geri Allen) do their thing (the climactic Hawkins-Young cutting contest, in which the sax players were encouraged to improvise, is a real highlight). Other players include David Murray, Don Byron, Olu Dara, Curtis Fowlkes, and Ron Carter. Whew. Led by music supervisor Hal Willner, this stunning array of players also appear in the concurrently-shot Great Performances documentary Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34. They swing in ways the rest of the film doesn't.

It's not that Kansas City is a failure; it's that it takes too long to work up any sympathy for these characters. Next to Addie, the one with the greatest sympathetic potential is Pearl (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a pregnant 14-year-old who comes to town to have her baby and, then, presumably to give it up for adoption. Other than the friendship she strikes up with Charlie, though, we don't learn anything about her. She and Blondie have a brief, touching exchange about their Joplin, Missouri home town, but that's about it. I don't think it's that Altman didn't care about the black characters in the film, but that he and Barhydt had trouble coming up with more compelling story lines for them. The exception, of course, is Belafonte, who is terrific. He and Altman had been friends for years before the director cast him in a film, and he was delighted with the results, not least because he cast the civil rights icon completely against type. It's possible that Belafonte found it freeing to say things he would never utter in public, like "White people are consumed with greed" (he blames them for the Depression, which seems fair) and the eminently quotable "I ain't scared of death--he's a cold cocksucker."

Altman and the Hey-Hey Club crew
If Altman opens with Blondie, he closes with Seldom Seen, and that feels right, though he considers the fade-out on Belafonte counting his bills as more of "a stopping place" than an ending, because "the only ending I know about is death" (few knew it at the time, but Altman's heart was getting ready to give out on him; his transplant took place shortly afterwards). Kansas City might have been a better movie with more of Belafonte's character and less of Jason Leigh's, but I agree with Altman that "it’s a film you have to see a second time." He adds, "And that was a mistake."

As grating as I found Jason Leigh in my first go-round, and those chompers are really the worst, Blondie's tough-gal act made more sense the second time around as I could see the extent to which she--and not Jason Leigh--wasn't a very good actress. Though Altman doesn't mention it, he had known his star for pretty much her entire life, since he worked with her father, Vic Morrow, on the '60s WWII series Combat! In the commentary, he expresses regret that critics accused her of overacting and rather gallantly takes the blame, since she was only doing what he asked of her.

If the time has come for Kansas City to get a second look from those who dismissed it 24 years ago, I hope they'll be as kind to her as he was.

Kansas City is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy/MVD Entertainment.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

This Is the Day a Trophy Wife's Life Will Surely Change in Carlo Mirabella-Davis's Swallow

(Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA, 2020, 95 minutes)

This is the day, your life will surely change 
This is the day, when things fall into place.
--The The, "This Is the Day"

The evocatively named Hunter (Haley Bennett, who recalls Michelle Williams as interpreted by Jennifer Lawrence) has what appears be an enviable life. She's pretty, she has a handsome husband, and they live in a Tom Ford-like Poughkeepsie ranch house overlooking a Hudson Valley lake. With her blonde bob, full skirts, and sensible heels, she resembles one of Hitchcock's cool blonde heroines, like Tippi Hedren in The Birds or (especially) Marnie. 

Even if I didn't know Swallow was a psychological thriller, I'd still know something was off by the way writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (The Swell Season) opens on three small lambs in a pen clinging to each other as the husband, Richie (Colossal's Austin Stowell), walks towards them. Through the magic of editing, one unfortunate quickly becomes dinner. The symbolism is clear: Hunter is a lamb on her way to the slaughter.

That sequence, which culminates in a "lamb and cabernet" dinner party for Richie's business associates, also reveals that his parents (Lincoln's Elizabeth Marvel and Succession's David Rasche) purchased his home. This is never a good sign, in fiction or in reality, since it means the couple is beholden to them. The house is also isolated. On the one hand, these two lovebirds can take romantic walks in the woods free from intrusions. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, help may not arrive in time.

Bennett, Stowell, Rasche, and Marvel / IFC Films
While the recently-promoted Richie works as managing director of his family's company, Hunter watches TV, plays smart-phone games, and prepares Instagram-friendly meals. It might be a sustainable lifestyle if she had friends, a job, or outside interests, except she doesn't. If Richie had more time for her, that would help, except he doesn't. When she finds out she's pregnant, she should be happy--finally! someone with whom she can spend time--except she isn't. The discovery coincides with her realization that no one in her orbit cares about her thoughts or opinions.

At this point, it's worth noting that she signed up for this, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't sympathize with her. For all we know, her options were limited. Or that's what the former sales associate believes, since she lacks a sense of self. This is where a supportive social circle might come in, but since she doesn't have one, her feelings of helplessness accelerate. The one thing she can control: her body. She can change it by the things she swallows. Though I was expecting the sort of feminist body horror of Julia Ducournau's Raw or Marina de Van's In My Skin, Hunter's eating disorder, pica, isn't really that uncommon. But it isn't exactly well known either. 

The heart is a lonely Hunter / IFC Films
So, she starts by eating ice before graduating to marbles, tacks, and batteries. She ends up expelling the items (not always tidily), washing them, and placing them on the vanity mirror in her bedroom. The feeling of control helps to compensate for the times Richie criticizes her housework or her mother-in-law suggests she had less-than-pure reasons for marrying him. Of course, she isn't just running the risk of harming her baby, but herself, which will only make it harder for her to take charge of her life. She doesn't seem to see another way out. Nor does she even acknowledge that that's what she wants.

The situation shifts when medical attention becomes necessary after an item gets stuck. Her secret is no longer a secret, and Richie isn't sympathetic. The in-laws swoop in with a plan involving a nutrient-rich diet, psychiatric care, and a 24-hour minder, Syrian refugee Loay (Laith Nakli). It's all designed to keep her healthy, but now she's more powerless than ever. "I'm not a baby," she complains, but the infantilization continues.

Gradually, Hunter fills the therapist in on her family background. It helps to explain her behavior, but the disclosure causes new complications. Although there's no devil worship involved, the film enters Rosemary’s Baby territory once she decides that everybody--her husband, her in-laws, and even the therapist--are out to get her. And she isn't completely wrong.

Hunter gialloicizes the baby's nursery / IFC Films
The solution to her conundrum springs from desperation, but it's also perverse in a way that goes beyond horror. Then again, this isn't a horror movie. That's what I expected, based on the setup, but Mirabella-Davis is more interested in the horror we carry inside of us than the kind that can manifest around us. Hunter's biggest obstacle to selfhood is a failure to reckon with her origin story.

If the ending is too neat, it's also emotionally satisfying, because it's more about taking control than getting revenge. Bennett, who served as executive producer, really sells her character's arc from timid homemaker to woman who speaks up for herself (when I reviewed Gregg Araki's Kaboom in 2011, I complained that her "blasé act gets old fast," but she's come a long way since then). An outspoken woman with legitimate concerns may not sound like horror to the average viewer, but to patriarchal control freaks like her husband and his family: it definitely is.

Swallow opens Mar 13 at the Varsity Theatre. You can also rent it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu. For insights into the making of the film, I recommend Sara Michelle Fetters' interview with Mirabella-Davis.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Russian Wunderkind Kantemir Balagov Reveals the Unwomanly Face of War in Beanpole

Tangled up in green / Kino Lorber
(Kantemir Balagov, 2020, Russia, 137 minutes) 

Beanpole, which takes place in Leningrad during the winter of 1945, isn't a war movie; it's more like a home front or post-war movie. As such, 28-year-old filmmaker Kantemir Balagov (Closeness) focuses on women more than men. Like Little Women, which takes place during the Civil War, it's permeated by a scarcity of food and more crucially in this case: sanity.

Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse, is taller than everyone around her--men included--and supernaturally pale. Even her eyebrows and eyelashes are white-blonde. She looks after men injured in the war, but she has an injury of her own, an epilepsy-like post-concussion syndrome resulting from her job as an anti-aircraft gunner (in the Film Club episode on Beanpole, Russian-born critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cites the period term shell shock). Sometimes Iya just...checks out. Her body continues to function, but her mind goes elsewhere, representing a danger to herself and others.

The ward of a tiny boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), Iya lives in a building bustling with hungry people, including an elderly gent eager for companionship (she shrugs him off). Shortly after Balagov has established the contours of her life, Iya's gunner associate, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, an inexperienced actor like Miroshnichenko) returns from the front to collect her son. Auburn-haired Masha, compact where Iya is towering, finds that the world she left behind has irrevocably changed. Instead of making a fuss, she appears to roll with it, but she's actually hatching a plan.

Iya in Vermeerian repose / Kino Lorber
Masha has a Mona Lisa smile that makes it hard to tell if she's happy, pretending to be happy, or if she might possibly be a sociopath. After unpacking her things and settling in, she expresses an urge to go dancing. When the women find the dance hall closed, they hook up with two young men instead. Things do not go well.

Though she lacks medical training, Masha gets a job at the hospital as an attendant. She and Iya report to Nikolay (Andrey Bykov, very good), a pragmatic widower who spends a lot of time giving patients, like quadriplegic father Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), bad news. He gives Masha bad news, too--mostly to confirm what she already knows.

The women's domestic situation is complicated by the reappearance of Sasha (Igor Shirokov), one of the young men from the night on the town. After running into Masha at the hospital while visiting with his philanthropist mother, he shows up at their door. To Iya's irritation, Masha lets him into their lives, possibly because she simply appreciates the fresh produce he's able to provide. Just as pragmatic as the doctor, Masha also sets up an illicit arrangement with Nikolay in order to recreate something she lost.

Though Beanpole is hardly a predictable film, it's a given that certain things won't end well, not least because Iya's discomfort around men suggests that she's either inexperienced, uninterested, or some combination of the two. Balagov, who took inspiration from Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich's 1985 book, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, doesn't spell it out explicitly, but it becomes increasingly clear that both women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have had issues before the war, but now they're threatening to become pathologies, and this isn't a time or a place where therapy is accessible, so they cling to each other in ways that could do more harm than good.

I'm so green / Kino Lorber

Beanpole is strikingly shot and framed by 24-year-old cinematographer Ksenia Sereda who uses color as a narrative device. Though many scenes take place at night or by candlelight, vivid red, green, and ochre add beauty to what is, essentially, a pretty grim story. In his director's statement, Balagov explains, "When I started to study the diaries of people who lived during that time, I learned that despite all the hardships and the devastation, they were surrounded by bright colors every day."

Color grows in importance as Masha paints the apartment green and borrows a green dress to impress a possible benefactor--and Iya wears a green sweater in most every scene. The color represents the potential for renewal in the women's shattered lives, but Balagov, winner of the best director award at Cannes, is enough of a realist to suggest that a storybook happy ending isn't likely for either one. But nor is a Russian-novel tragedy a guarantee. If the look of his film threatens to overwhelm the content, the filmmaker stays on the right side of that equation more often than not.

Beanpole plays SIFF Cinema Uptown Feb 14 - 16. Click here for details. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

Australian Filmmaker Kitty Green Casts a Cool Eye on a Predator's Retinue in The Assistant

Julia Garner as the hyper-efficient Jane / Bleecker Street
(Kitty Green, 2020, USA, 87 minutes)

Jane (Julia Garner), who lives in Queens, wakes up so early to get to her job in the City that it's pitch black when she leaves her apartment (the better to appreciate the glittering lights of the Queensboro Bridge). Unlike most office drones, though, she doesn't bike, drive, or take the train. A chauffeured car picks her up. As the first employee in the office each day, Jane turns on the lights, makes the coffee, and gets to work.

Australian filmmaker Kitty Green's narrative feature debut, after the documentaries Ukraine Is Not a BrothelThe Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, and Casting JonBenet, focuses on one day in Jane's life at a Manhattan entertainment company that resembles Miramax in its early days, before it became The Weinstein Company, and before things got ugly. Her coolly observant film journeys into the heart of that ugliness.

Jane is pleasant and professional, and because Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark, The Americans, We Are What We Are) plays her with a minimum of fuss, she comes across as a convincing human being, though some of her tasks aren't exactly typical, like when she writes checks for large amounts to unnamed recipients, returns an earring from the floor of her unseen boss's office to the uncomfortable woman who left it behind, or wipes down her boss's couch with rubber gloves and cleaning fluid. Why would she do such a thing? Green knows we know why, and doesn't need to spell it out.

Jane with Sienna (Kristine Froseth) / Bleecker Street
The director often shoots Jane from slightly above, an odd but not especially distracting choice. The point seems to be to show her from the perspective of a person, presumably a man, looming over her desk. The ironic part: the film is from Jane's POV. We see what she sees--except when we're watching her. Even then, though, we aren't privy to anything beyond her line of sight.

This approach stands in opposition to Casting JonBenet, in which actors auditioning for roles in a re-creation of the case of the six-year-old Colorado girl's still-unsolved murder look at the camera and talk about themselves and their characters, including the victim and her parents, Patsy and John Ramsey. The documentary also features a sweeping score, unlike The Assistant, which eschews any noticeable soundtrack--other than the garbled buzz of voices issuing from cell phones and from behind closed doors.

Toward the end of the day, Jane decides to tell HR director Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) about the troubling things she's been noticing, because she's been cleaning up after them. Macfadyen plays Wilcock in a lower-key register than his status-obsessed Tom Wambsgans on HBO's Succession. He makes it clear to Jane that she should keep quiet if she wishes to remain employed. He ends by saying something an HR director should never say to an employee who suspects their boss of sexual harassment. It's meant to be reassuring, but only proves he knows exactly how deep the rot goes.

Matthew Macfadyen as Wilcock / Bleecker Street
The other assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) with whom Jane shares her office space also provide hints that they know about their boss's extracurricular activities and that it's best to remain as oblivious and subservient as possible. After they've left for the day, and after she's shown an attractive new assistant (Kristine Froseth) the ropes, she's the only one left.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a filmmaker best known for her documentary work, but now that I've seen The Assistant, I find myself noticing more similarities than differences, since Casting JonBenet features sequences in which actors recreate scenes from real peoples' lives, much as in the films of Robert Greene, like Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee 17. In other words, before Green made a narrative feature, she was already heading in that direction. As she puts it in the press notes, The Assistant is "a fiction film that had an intensive documentary-style research process," since Jane is a composite of the many female film workers she interviewed.

There isn't much more to her film than what I've described. Jane starts and ends her day in darkness--literally, not metaphorically. If she didn't know what she was getting into when she took the job, the five weeks she's spent at her boss's beck and call have shown her all she needs to know. During her meeting with Wilcock, she tells him she aspires to be a producer. If she stays, she just might get there; if she leaves, she just might not. She's a recent college graduate, and nothing is written in stone, but she's also contributing to a toxic environment in which women are the primary victims.

Kitty Green doesn't judge her, and Julia Garner is too savvy an actress to beg for the audience's sympathy, but it's hard not to feel conflicted. It took a lot of hard-working women, like Jane, to help Harvey Weinstein reach the pinnacle of his profession. But it also took a lot to bring him to justice.

The Assistant opens at Pacific Place on Feb 14. It is not a good date movie.